Tuesday, February 3, 2015

View In Peace: Tombstone

The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power hit home video and streaming recently starring a plethora of mixed martial artists along with genre staples Barry Bostwick, Rutger Hauer, Lou Ferrigno and Michael Biehn.  2002's The Scorpion King was of course a spin off from 1999's blockbuster update of The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz that was produced by Sean Daniel and James "Jim" Jacks. It's been over a year since former Wall Street analyst turned screenwriter and producer Jacks passed away. Biehn had worked with Jacks years previously on 1993's Tombstone, the latest retelling of the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday myth starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Like Hard Target before it, Tombstone's production was rife with issues but in this case nearly fell apart. Many in the cast and crew credit Jacks and especially Russell for holding the film together which became a Christmas box office hit and has lived on to become a fan and genre favorite.

Rambo: First Blood Part II and Glory screenwriter Kevin Jarre produced a well researched, epic scale script based on the trials and tribulations of the Earp family coming to Tombstone seeking riches in silver and gambling, butting heads with cowboys and the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. At first attaching Kevin Costner to the project, the Dances With Wolves star walked and went to set up his own version with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves director Kevin Reynolds and The Bodyguard writer Lawrence Kasdan. Andrew Vajna, formerly of Carolco, picked up Jarre's script and attached Russell after rumored Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp fell out. So strong was Costner's pull at the time, no studio wanted to release Tombstone except Disney's Hollywood Pictures. Permutations of casting saw the likes of Richard Gere and Willem Dafoe up for the Wyatt and Doc roles before Russell and Kilmer settled in. Jarre's script attracted a who's who of familiar faces with Michael Biehn wanting the already claimed Holliday role and choosing "villain" Johnny Ringo instead. Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott came on as Wyatt's brothers Morgan and Virgil while Powers Boothe sided with Biehn to lead the Cowboys, a vicious gang of gunfighters and rustlers. Screen legends Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum gave the cast gravitas while up and comers Stephen Lang, Jason Priestley, Jon Tenny, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Michael Rooker, Joanna Pacula, Billy's Zane and Bob Thornton filled the ranks of lawmen, ranchers, entertainers and hooligans.

Jarre was handed directing reins and the large ensemble cast headed to Arizona in May of 1993 where the skilled writer but novice director quickly fell behind. Meticulous in his research and approach, Jarre would get hung up on every detail from facial hair to costumes to saddles and saw the actors as figures only there to say his dialog his way. Shooting Heston's scenes as Earp ally Henry Hooker first, Jarre was warned by cast and crew that he would soon be fired for his lack of progress, overlong script and dailies that failed to showcase the famous cast. Disposing of close ups and instead opting to shoot everything in wide master shots. Just weeks into the shoot, Jarre was fired. John McTiernan was interested in replacing Jarre but wanted two weeks to review already shot footage to which producers could not oblige. Russell kept the picture together and with the help of friend Sylvester Stallone, brought in Cobra and Rambo II director George P. Cosmatos to finish the film. Along with Cosmatos came young writer John Fasano (Another 48 Hours) who was also working for Vajna's Cinergi Pictures at the time. Hopping on a private jet to Arizona, the new director and writer were introduced to the disgruntled cast and crew just hours after Jarre had been taken off the picture. Russell immediately backed Cosmatos and began working with Fasano to cut down the epic script. Retreating to the cast hotel, Fasano would work with Russell and Kilmer every night, shaping and rewriting scenes to fit the new schedule.

Jarre's original script depicted the Earp clan moving to Tombstone, setting up homes and being introduced to the bustling town. Robert Mitchum's character Old Man Clanton is more involved and we see the Cowboys battling local law enforcement from the states and Mexico. Characters are more fleshed out, especially Michael Rooker's Cowboy turned Earp supporter McMasters and Biehn's Johnny Ringo who in the film is seen a quiet, cold blooded killer but in the script comes off as more weird and anxious who turns to violence without warning. Truer to history, Wyatt forms an uneasy alliance with Curly Bill that is broken when tensions between the lawmen Earps and some of the Cowboys. Now it was Fasano's job to cut 20-30 pages that Jarre would not.

Russell bit the bullet first and volunteered to have scenes and lines cut, thus not making it solely about him and setting the precedent. Mitchum was rumored to have been injured in a riding accident and had his scenes removed, instead narrating the start and finish of the film. Fasano then had the unenviable task of approaching each actor and asking what handful of scenes made them take the part then jettisoning others. In real life the Earp's weren't as squeaky clean as Hollywood had depicted while the Cowboys weren't quite as evil but those tones of gray were removed in favor of clear cut good guys and bad guys at the behest of Disney and finishing on time. Russell and Jacks worked with Cosmatos, giving him a shot list every night and "ghost directing" the picture to a degree. While some actors were troubled and angered by their reduced roles, Val Kilmer simply said he'd sit back with his cough and little cup and steal every scene he was in. Tensions mounted on set with the new director, altered schedule and stifling heat. A reported 100 cast and crew members quit or were fired from the production.

After originally being scheduled to film for 62 days, delays stretched the production to 80 and into August with post production needing to come quickly as their December release date loomed. A two hour popcorn western came from the editing room that held together remarkably well. But Disney put little promotion behind the picture and it opened at # 3 on Christmas Eve of 1993 with a $6.4 million weekend behind repeat champs The Pelican Brief and Mrs. Doubtfire. The seemingly soft opening would put it at #51 for the year but the film garnered decent reviews and word of mouth quickly spread as grosses went up in it's 2nd weekend. Tombstone would go on to gross $56 million on a $25 million dollar budget and rank #20 for the year. Kilmer's performance was particularly singled out and has since become one of his signature roles.

Russell would follow up with successful big budget action films Stargate and Executive Decision then earn a reported $10 million to reprise his role as Snake Plissken in Escape From L.A. which grossed half it's $50 million budget. Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton as Batman in 1995 and cast opposite Robert DeNiro in Michael Mann's Heat immediately after. Starring vehicles The Ghost and the Darkness and The Saint would do little to prop up his leading man status. Powers Boothe showed up as the villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1995 Die Hard in a hockey arena effort Sudden Death before re-teaming with Bill Paxton directorial effort Frailty. Michael Biehn reunited with director William Friedkin on the big budget bust Jade before being cast as a Navy Seal commander in Michael Bay's $300 million grossing The Rock.

Sadly, director George P. Cosmatos died in 2005 and shortly after stories of the troubled production on Tombstone began to emerge from among others, star Kurt Russell. Russell openly discussed the difficulties of production and bringing in Cosmatos as a ghost director. He sees the finished film as fine but feels it could have been a western Godfather if he had been able to edit it and Disney actually believed in the picture. Five time Academy Award nominated cinematographer William A. Fraker died in 2010 after a battle with cancer. History buff Kevin Jarre would work with Jacks on The Jackal and The Mummy but never recovered from the Tombstone experience and died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Jacks passed away in January of 2014, still upset that much of the film's fantastic original script ended up being cut out or left on the editing room floor. Writer/artist John Fasano died in his sleep in July after a 25 year career. Fasano would go on to work with Tombstone veterans Rooker, Biehn, Boothe and Zane among others stating that the difficult experience bonded them forever.

Enjoyable and epic in it's own right, Kevin Costner's 1994 Wyatt Earp would eventually cost more than twice as much but gross less than half than Tombstone with it's bloated 3 hour run time missing the mark with audiences to end up in DVD bargain bins. While Tombstone may not the be film it's makers originally intended, it still holds up as an entertaining, star studded and action packed affair for casual and dedicated western fans alike. It's a title that has jumped generations via cable, video and special edition DVD for Russell, Kilmer, Paxton, Boothe, Biehn and Elliott. Here's hoping we get to see the extra footage Kurt Russell has in his garage someday.

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